AAP in the air: Kerjriwal’s party laying ground for its big leap to national stage

AAP’s success in Delhi hinged on a door-to-door campaign, the support of the omnipresent autorickshaws and a media blitz. (Reuters) AAP’s success in Delhi hinged on a door-to-door campaign, the support of the omnipresent autorickshaws and a media blitz. (Reuters)

When few gave him a chance against Sheila Dikshit, Arvind Kejriwal beat her by 25,000 votes and formed the government in Delhi. While no one believed their government would be incident-free, the AAP regime heaved from one controversy to another. And just as people started to say he made empty threats, Kejriwal exited in a dramatic resignation.

It’s now just over a week since that 49-day government fell, but the fledgling party is revving the momentum it generated to try and take it from Delhi’s Civil Lines to the Capital’s Raisina Hill. More  importantly, the party appears ready for the metamorphosis it requires even as it again changes the rules of the game and others scramble to catch up.

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Since Kejriwal resigned as CM, the party has been busy: releasing a list of candidates across states, launching an aggressive funding drive and taking its anti-corruption drive several notches higher to India’s richest man, even as it prepares a list of its government’s achievements in Delhi, to form the fulcrum of its campaign.

TELE-VISION

AAP’s success in Delhi hinged on a door-to-door campaign, the support of the omnipresent autorickshaws and a media blitz. But for that, the party had toiled for a little more than a year, with over 40 of the 70 candidates declared months before the elections. Campaigning too was limited to a few hundred square kilometres.

With that canvas now spanning close to 20 states, AAP is looking at television as its force multiplier. The volunteers who were the heart of AAP’s Delhi campaign will supplement that, reaching out to corners with little media reach. Several volunteers from Delhi now have constituencies or even states under them. “We have now been in government and the challenge is to take that experience across the country,” says Gopal Mohan, who was Kejriwal’s campaign manager for the Assembly elections.

There is a flipside to it. In the first wave of AAP excitement, when it sprung from the India Against Corruption movement, the media devoted a lot of space to it. The brush with power and controversy in Delhi has ended that honeymoon. “They either support you, or completely trash the work that the party does,” says an AAP leader wryly.

PRIME CAPITAL

A large part of strategising for the Lok Sabha polls revolves around advertising the work done in Delhi. “We need to advertise to counter those, including the media, that question our intent. For instance, it is important to remind people that we resigned from the Delhi government because of other parties joining hands to refuse the passage of the Jan Lokpal Bill, and not because of the conspiracy theories floating around,” a source says.

As has been its practice, AAP has decentralised the process of allocating funds for advertising. “Individual MP candidates will be tasked with identifying how much advertising is required,” says a leader.

Measures such as flash mobs, music concerts, street performances will also be used to attract people. In Mumbai, in addition to the door-to-door campaigns, the party is organising events at train stations and in colleges. “Flash mobs and street plays are performed at least once a day in the city. From March 1, we will be holding  street plays and music concerts,” says Preeti Sharma Menon, AAP volunteer in Mumbai.

While the booth management training for Delhi elections began just two weeks before polling day — one of the aspects on which AAP was found wanting — the party already has teams ready in each constituency for this exercise for the Lok Sabha elections. “Every Lok Sabha constituency has 1,500 polling booths and each polling station caters to around 300 households. Two volunteers have been assigned to look at each polling booth,” says Menon.

The party is also planning to use celebrity power. “While Raghu Ram and Vishal Dadlani joined the campaign for Delhi, we expect some Marathi film personalities to contest in the Lok Sabha polls,” says Menon.

In Mumbai, the party’s efforts are expected to be helped by Sandeep Desai, a professor who begs on local trains to raise money for schools.

The party plans to field intellectual, entertainment and corporate luminaries. “Rajiv Bajaj (managing director, Bajaj Auto), Adarsh Shastri (Lal Bahadur Shastri’s grandson), Rajmohan Gandhi (Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson), and singer-songwriter Rabbi Shergill are in the fray,” sources in the party say.

However, the party seems divided over allocating resources for the Lok Sabha campaign. While sources close to Kejriwal claim he preferred concentrating on key constituencies, other leaders prevailed about contesting at least 350 seats. “We will contest as many seats as possible, but concentrate on winning seats against politicians we believe are symbols of corruption,” explains a senior leader.

There is also a split over the party’s Lok Sabha prospects. While one school of thought believes that it should aim to win around 60 seats and form the core of the opposition in Parliament, others believe that AAP could benefit from a ‘wave’ akin to Delhi and even form the government. However, admits a party functionary: “We must be practical. Delhi is a smaller election compared to the country and caste and class play a lesser role. Most of us believe we should concentrate on Tier-I and a few Tier-II cities.”

THE ISSUE factor

The transition from Delhi to India will also require the party to take a stance on several issues they had thus far sidestepped. Kejriwal walked into one such minefield when he defended the idea of khap panchayats.

“We are repeatedly asked about our stand on dynasty, nepotism, caste, women’s issues and so on. Even if these were not important in Delhi, in rural areas, they matter. Some questions are easy to answer. For instance, the party has in-built safeguards against dynastic politics, as no two people from the same family can apply for a ticket. The other questions are slightly harder to answer as we are such a diverse party. But we always have the same response: that it only matters that we will work with honesty,” says Lalit Agarwal, AAP district head of Bhiwani.

While some see it jostling for secular space as the Congress, AAP says its main plank will be corruption. “With its ideology of including people, the party is secular. Therefore, we find ourselves in natural opposition to  the BJP and Narendra Modi. However, since our main plank is corruption, we will also oppose the Congress at every step,” an AAP leader says.

CORRUPTION PLANK

That anti-corruption will remain its highest priority was clear from Kejriwal’s snap resignation as CM over the Jan Lokpal Bill.

Sources in the party say that Kejriwal had decided days into forming the government that his stance on the Jan Lokpal Bill would never waver. But it did. The AAP manifesto promised a Lokpal in Delhi 15 days after assuming power, and in a public session of the Delhi Assembly. But that was not to be. In the end, the Congress and BJP united in their opposition not against the Bill itself, but AAP’s procedure.

Sources in AAP admitted that Kejriwal’s resignation would be mentioned across the country. “Voters like honesty. His resignation has helped the party immensely ahead of the elections,” says a senior leader, adding that membership and donations to the party spiked the day Kejriwal quit.

To ram home the party’s stand on corruption, Kejriwal even took on the Union government and Mukesh Ambani days before his last Assembly session.

CASHING IN

If fundraising for the Delhi Assembly elections revolved around online donations and tapping entrepreneurs, AAP has taken a huge leap for the Lok Sabha polls. Meetings with high net worth individuals (HNIs) in cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Gurgaon, EMI options for donors, plastic and mobile money are some of the ways in which the party plans to raise funds.

“The idea is to make the process of donation as hassle-free as possible. Earlier, we only accepted cheques or cash. We are now planning to instal card-swiping electronic machines at major party offices,” says Kumar Gaurav, AAP member in charge of fund collection.

Fact sheet

– Rs 9,54,25,274 collected as donation till February 22
 – 10,004 applications received  for 501 Lok Sabha constituencies
 – 2,33,362 volunteers have joined AAP since January 21, against a target of 5 lakhs

The party has also tied up with telecom service provider Airtel so that subscribers can transfer funds to AAP through its mobile money scheme. “A similar service with Vodafone, called Mpaise, is being explored,” Gaurav says.

AAP supporters might even be able to give funds to the party in instalments. “There is only one company in India which gives this option. We are in talks with them,” says Gaurav.

Party members maintain that a target hasn’t been set yet for the Lok Sabha elections. “The budget has not been fixed because we do not know how many seats we would be contesting. On an average, the sum per constituency is around Rs 1 crore, including the amount that will be spent by the candidate,” Gaurav says.

On February 15, a day after Kejriwal’s resignation, the party received Rs 27 lakh in donations as opposed to the daily average of Rs 3-4 lakh.

On the eve of the New Year, the party had launched a ‘Donate 2014’ campaign, and it started a similar campaign on February 14. “Different teams have been formed. On occasions like New Year’s eve and Valentine’s Day, we try to boost the donation drive. On February 14, we asked people to donate for love of clean and honest politics,” Gaurav says.

Under one such fund-collection drive launched recently, ‘I Fuel Swaraj’, volunteers from across the country and abroad were given the task of collecting Rs 50,000 in 15 days.

But AAP also knows too well that, in the end, the party’s fortunes rest on on a handful of ‘star campaigners’, including Kejriwal, Yogendra Yadav and Manish Sisodia. “We are in the process of scheduling jan sabhas, rallies and large-scale public outreach programmes with Kejriwal,” a senior leader says.

That is the biggest weapon, AAP believes, in its armoury — Kejriwal campaigning in every state. “In the end, it is Kejriwal that the voter relates to the most,” a senior leader says.